Why Is Population Decline a Problem Across the Globe?

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Why is population decline a problem in the U.S., China, Europe, and other global powers? What’s causing birth rates to fall?

For the first time in 50 years, deaths in China outnumbered births. Experts argue that population decline is a problem in the U.S., Europe, and other wealthy nations, placing them on the same crash course as China if they don’t figure out a way to turn things around quickly.

Read on to learn why population decline is a problem worldwide and if our population panic is warranted.

Why Are Populations Decreasing?

In January, the world’s second-largest economy reported that deaths outnumbered births for the first time in 50 years. In 2022, more than 10 million people in China died and 9.56 million babies were born—down from 10.6 million births a year earlier. Experts say the problem is by no means China’s, alone: If the U.S., Europe, and other global powers don’t right their declining fertility rates soon, they too are headed for a world of economic pain. But, why is population decline a problem across the globe and are there any upsides to shrinking populations?

In this article, we’ll discuss why population decline is a problem by explaining the economic consequences in China and other wealthy nations. Then, we’ll discuss what’s behind the drop in global fertility rates and if there are there any upsides. Finally, we’ll explore what the future holds as we face staggering population declines.

The Perils of Population Decline 

Why is population decline a problem? First, wealthy nations like China and the U.S. rely on a robust population to power their workforces and maintain their global economic power. Until recently, China’s working-age population had boomed for decades and brought the country’s economy along with it: Today, China produces 70% of the world’s solar panels, 60% of its farm machines, and components for 25% of the planet’s robots.

But with record low and fewer births each year, by 2035, one-third of China’s 1.41 billion population (400 million people) will be over 60 and entering their waning workforce years. Experts say population decline is a problem because:

  • A top-heavy aging population means labor shortages that will reduce tax revenue and pension system contributions—and it’s unclear whether the Chinese government will be able to provide adequate medical services and income to care for its older citizens.

All of this, experts say, is a wake-up call for the U.S. and Europe: Increase your shrinking fertility rates or face an equally dire economic forecast.  

Why Are Fertility Rates Declining in Wealthy Countries?

Fertility rates have fallen 50% globally in the past 70 years. Experts attribute the problem of population decline in wealthy nations to a range of factors, including women’s empowerment in education and the workforce, lower child mortality, rising childcare costs, and rising incomes—which offer childless individuals greater financial freedom. 

In China, specifically, experts say the dropoff results, in part, from officials’ failure to loosen policies restricting births and incentivize childbearing in pace with the country’s growing economy. 

In the U.S., they attribute declining fertility rates to women having fewer children and delaying having them until they’re in their mid-thirties so they can pursue higher education and work opportunities, and as a result of shifting familial values and relationship instability, and for financial reasons.  

The Upsides of Population Decline

Not all experts agree that population decline is, in fact, a problem. They call the stark warnings about China’s declining birth rate hasty, simplistic, and alarmist.

Far from being a problem, experts say there are clear benefits of population decline in nations including China, South Korea, and Japan. For example, women are experiencing greater personal and reproductive freedom and participating in the workforce at levels that may ease predicted labor shortages, and life expectancies are increasing, which means citizens can contribute to economies longer. 

What’s Next?

Experts say that if China’s birth rates remain at their historic low and the country fails to attract more migrants to fill the pending labor force gap, it will lose nearly half its population (700 million people) by the end of the century—and its dominant, global economic status along with it.

Although U.S. fertility rates are also on the decline, experts say that projected population growth from immigration could save the country from the same fate: By the second half of this century, 103 million people in the U.S. (one-third of the population) will be migrants.

But other experts argue that frantically emphasizing population growth in blind pursuit of economic dominance risks relegating women to the role of birth machines. Instead, wealthy nations should refocus on increasing access to quality and affordable child care, affordable and equitable college education, a guaranteed minimum income, and gender equality.

Why Is Population Decline a Problem Across the Globe?

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Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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